Time to close Southbury Training School

The Southbury Training School was built in the 1930s as a home for people who were then known as mentally retarded. It was a time when institutionalizing the mentally ill was common and the state also operated large hospitals for men and women in Norwich, Middletown and Newtown.

Those facilities are long gone, the result of a not always successful movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, but Southbury remains, the result of well-meaning but misguided compassion for those few still living there and their families.

The recent dispute over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's rejection of a federal government request to house children who have fled Central America at Southbury focused new attention on the forgotten institution and raised new questions as to why this aged, rundown place remains in operation.

In refusing the federal government's request, Patrick O'Brien, an assistant director of the state's Bureau of Assets Management, wrote that the school "is typically in a state of disrepair to the point where a certificate of occupancy would be difficult to obtain. Indeed, many existing structures are beyond salvage and require environmental remediation and demolition." The term "unfit for human habitation" comes to mind.

This is not exactly new. In the 1970s, media coverage of the school's physical plant and questionable treatment practices led to the removal of its younger residents and all but its most severely handicapped adults. It has admitted no new residents since 1986 and, after a federal investigation later found dangerous conditions for an overly drugged population, the courts appointed a federal master to oversee the school from 1997 to 2008.

Southbury once housed as many as 2,300 children and adults, a number that has shrunk to 329 adults, whose average age is 65. They live on a 1,600-acre campus with 125 buildings, many of them crumbling and shut down, and are cared for by a staff of 1,100, or more than three caregivers for every resident. The plan appears to be to let these residents remain at Southbury until they die and then close it.

Until then, the state will continue to spend an incredible amount to care for each of these people, $976 a day, more than twice the $452 daily expenditure in a private facility. That adds up to more than $351,000 a year for each of these residents.

When the federal government withdrew its partial control over Southbury six years ago, the state Department of Developmental Services has been required to offer options for living elsewhere to the remaining residents but many have been there most or all of their lives and families fear moving them would be too disruptive.

Their position is supported by one of the candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. State Sen. John McKinney, out of sympathy for the residents and their families, believes the state should allow the few aging residents to remain. His opponent, Tom Foley, disagrees.

"It's hard for me to believe that they're able to provide the quality of care and the environment there that the state of Connecticut's resources in today's world can and should provide," Mr. Foley, being more specific than we've come to expect, told The CT Mirror.

Gov. Malloy has been silent on Southbury's future but his administration's rejection of the request to use Southbury to house the Central American children said a lot about the condition of the place. Mr. O'Brien of the Bureau of Assets Management noted - maybe "feared" is the better word - that the temporary housing of these children "would be intensively scrutinized by a multitude of interest groups."

It would and it has and despite the well-meaning concerns of the residents' families, this newspaper must agree with those who believe there is little justification for keeping this potentially dangerous relic of the past operating any longer.

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